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What is the Elwell Ferry?

Ben Steelman
StarNews

 

The Elwell Ferry in August, 2012. Photo by Si Cantwell.

Q. Is the one car ferry crossing the Cape Fear River still operational? If so, where can I view a schedule?

A. The Elwell Ferry, which crosses the Cape Fear River near Kelly in Bladen County, is one of the last surviving river ferries in North Carolina. (The others are the Sans Souci Ferry, across the Cashie River in Bertie County, and Parker’s Ferry, across the Meherrin River in Hertford County.)

Capable of carrying just two cars at a time, the diesel-powered ferry — which is drawn across by a cable– connects N.C. 87 on the west bank of the Cape Fear and N.C. 53 on the east bank, by way of Elwell Ferry Road.

The ferry runs every day except Christmas, according to a spokesman with the state Department of Transportation’s maintenance office in Elizabethtown. Every day, that is, unless water is unusually high on the river (as it’s been recently), or in conditions of fog or lightning, or when it needs maintenance.

When operating, the ferry runs between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. in spring and summer months, and between sunrise and sunset during the rest of the year. There isn’t a set schedule; you just pull up to the bank and honk for service.

The ferry dates from 1905, when brothers Walter Hayes Russ and John Roland Russ petitioned the Bladen County Commissioners for permission to operate a ferry at the site. (The “Elwell” name comes from a family that resided in the area.) At first, the ferry was powered by paddles; the county paid the Russ brothers to operate it.

Early loads were mules and wagons, until the first motor vehicles arrived in Bladen County around 1916.

In the 1930s, the state took over the ferry service, added larger flatboats to the service, and installed a cable system to pull the ferry across. In 1939, a gas engine was installed to run the ferry. In March 1942, Walter Russ — who had stayed on with the ferry and oversaw improvements — died in an explosion blamed on poorly ventilated gas fumes igniting in the bilge. The gas engine was later replaced by a diesel engine.

In 1967, the first steel flatboat went into service. All previous ferries had been wooden.

Until 1952, the ferry was the only way across the Cape Fear River between Wilmington and Elizabethtown. In that year, a bridge was built across the Cape Fear 12 miles below the ferry site. Highway officials, however, have said it’s unlikely the Elwell Ferry will be replaced any time soon. A replacement bridge would be expensive and ferry operations are relatively cheap. Also, it attracts tourists.

By some estimates, the ferry carries an average of 60 vehicles per day.

Walter Russ was not the only person to die in connection with the ferry. In 1967, two people jumped off the ferry and drowned, apparent suicides, and in 1994, two other men drowned while trying to load an oversized vehicle onto the ferry. A number of cars fell overboard until operators started using wheel chocks.

River ferries were once extremely common across North Carolina. Until 1929, when the “Twin Bridges” were completed, a ferry operated across the Cape Fear at Wilmington, with a landing at Market Street.

To reach the Elwell Ferry from Wilmington, take US 74/76 west, then take N.C. 87 north for about 16 miles before turning right onto Elwell Ferry Road. (Carvers Creek United Methodist Church is located near the intersection.) The ferry landing will be about a mile and a half east.

RELATED LINKS:

http://www.gribblenation.com/ncpics/ferry/elwell.html

http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?ct=ddl&sp=search&k=Markers&sv=I-84%20-%20ELWELL%20FERRY

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